A Bollywood buff, 23-year-old Shalini will be dancing on Diwali. “I am going to make it my best Diwali because it is a festival that celebrates the idea of homecoming. I am back with my family after making an idiotic mistake,” she says, adding that she will not be hiding the bruises on her body with makeup.
A few days before the lockdown was announced on March 24, Shalini got married to a man she had met at a party four years ago. “As our bond was quite good, we decided to have a ceremony in a temple against my family’s wishes,” she says. Shalini wrote a crisp note to her father stating that she didn’t want a single paisa or an inch of his property. “I will prove to you that my husband can keep your daughter happy and achieve success on his own merit,” it said.
The abuse started 15 days later. Her mother-in-law broached the subject of money — Rs 20 lakh to grow their business. “I refused outright. Before we were married, my husband used to tell me that he had no financial expectations from my family and I believed him,” she says. Her husband, a businessman, turned abusive as his debts mounted during the pandemic. “I could not bear the violence — he was beating me all the time while his mother yelled abuses at me. They would lock me in a room without food, water or electricity. I wanted to leave but where could I go?” she says.
A rise in domestic violence has been one of the darkest features of the lockdown. The Delhi-based National Commission for Women received 1,477 complaints between March and May, a 2.5-time increase from the 607 cases during the same period in 2019. “People, who are abused, are fearful of reporting it, have low self-esteem and are traumatised. They feel unsafe in their homes and in the lockdown situation, this gets worse because there is no escape,” says Arvinder J Singh, a psychotherapist and founder of the Centre for Well-Being at Ashoka University in Delhi.
Shalini finally called her mother on a day when she was beaten so badly she could barely walk. “My father came over and told my husband, ‘I can’t see my daughter in pain. I am taking her away and will not send her back at any cost’. Suddenly, my home began to mean a lot more to me. I began to see things I had not earlier — that my parents were my best friends who supported me through my mistakes. In India, a daughter’s place is supposed to be her husband’s home but I found a safe space in a place I had always taken for granted,” she says.
The family still has no answer when neighbours and relatives ask when Shalini’s husband will be coming to take her “home”. “We are so socially conditioned that I don’t know how to tell them that I am home. Home is the place where I have my father, who, forgetting that I wrote him a scathing letter before my wedding, takes me on surprise trips to Lonavala and Alibaug and plays board games to cheer me up. My mother makes momos and biryani that I enjoy eating. My younger sister watches silly cartoons with me and we laugh,” she says.
Shalini is learning the ropes of divorce proceedings when lawyers ask personal questions that force her to revisit her nightmares. “Marrying is the easy part, getting separated is something else entirely. I am scared and traumatised after answering the lawyer’s questions but, as my parents say, the past is gone while I have my present and future. I am lucky I have a home — and that’s why Diwali is going to be brighter this year,” she says.
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